Miles Davis: Miles Ahead
SME Records SRGS4543
Stereo Single Layer
Review by Mark Werlin - August 27, 2019
What makes one digital remaster sound different from another issue of the same recording? For jazz albums recorded during the analogue era, variance in sound quality of remasters can be traced to the source — an original master tape versus an LP production copy; reproducing tape machine; proprietary signal processing, sample rate conversion, and other technical choices made by the engineer. For some classic jazz albums, there is enough information in the public sphere, in books, magazines and interviews, excerpts of which may be posted or quoted online, for jazz collectors to know the source and methods used in a given digital reissue.
Miles Ahead SACD (SRGS4543) was released by the Japan division of Sony Music Entertainment (SME) in the year 2000. Although the SACD OBI strip contains the description "DSD Mastering from Original Analog Master", the underlying source and the processes used to master the material to DSD remain obscure more than 20 years after the creation of the stereo version of the album. What is known:
The recording sessions for Miles Ahead exceeded the scope of any jazz album up to that time. Producer George Avakian granted arranger-conductor Gil Evans a generous budget to hand-pick a large ensemble of the best sight-readers in New York, not the typical choice of available session players. Miles Davis, playing fluegelhorn rather than his usual trumpet, an ensemble of sixteen brass and woodwinds, and a rhythm section of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Art Taylor were recorded by engineer Cal Lampley in Columbia Records' spacious 30th Street Studio.
At the first four sessions, May 6, 10, 23, and 27, 1957, the ensemble and Miles Davis were mixed together onto a two-track tape recorder. The foregoing statement is an inference; what has been reported is that Miles did not play all of his solos at those sessions, and that four solos were recorded at a session on August 22. The ensemble recordings were extensively razor-blade edited to create composite full performances. Were the original two-channel masters edited? Presumably, because you can hear small dropouts on some tracks of the SACD, but published accounts do not so specify. The (presumably) edited two-channel tapes were mixed to mono and transferred onto a single track of a three-track tape recorder. According to reissue producer Phil Schaap, at the August 22 session Miles overdubbed the solos for "Springsville", "Miles Ahead", "New Rhumba" and "I Don't Wanna Be Kissed" onto a second track. Then the ensemble track and overdubbed solos track were mixed and recorded onto the tape's third track to create a finished mono mix for the original Columbia mono LP release.
Tape editing to create composite tracks from breakdowns and multiple takes was not unheard of at that time; Charlie Mingus: Tijuana Moods was painstakingly assembled from partial takes. The realization of Miles Ahead was unusually dependent on this method because Gil Evans was a perfectionist, a visionary who conceived the music in his imagination at a level that was nearly impossible for musicians to reproduce in the real world. Evans pushed the ensemble through take after take, to the point that some brass players reported to producer Avakian that their lips were giving out.
Phil Schaap and mastering engineer Mark Wilder created what Schaap describes as the first true stereo version of Miles Ahead. This stereo version was issued on the Grammy Award-winning CD box set "Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings", the Mosaic Records LP set of the same material, a 1997 Sony Legacy single CD, and the SME Japan SACD. According to Schaap's liner notes to the Legacy CD, for the songs where Miles overdubbed his solos, the two-channel tapes of ensemble performances were digitally mixed with Miles' solos from the three-channel tape recorder. Presumably, this was only required for the four songs on which Miles overdubbed his solos. If he recorded at the same time as the ensemble on the remaining six songs, then his solos were already contained in the original two-channel tapes.
An A/B comparison of the SME JSACD and the Sony Legacy CD reveals sonic dissimilarities that are difficult to account for: different mastering approaches, or different sources? Schaap's liner notes to the Sony Legacy CD and the booklet included in the box set do not provide extensive details about the processes through which the stereo reconstruction was created. I have not been able to locate any information from the principals (producer and engineer) in English about the source used by SME to master the SACD. Absent that information, we can only let our ears be the judge. For lack of a better comparison: the SME SACD sounds like what you would expect from a DSD transfer from analogue, and the Legacy CD sounds like a CD mastered from a 16/44.1 source. The SACD has better high frequency extension, especially noticeable in louder brass passages and on drummer Art Taylor's snare and cymbals. There is a deeper soundstage overall, and what seems like greater left-right separation of the ensemble. At the end of the song "Miles Ahead", which was the closing track on the original LP Side One, there is a longer section of silence preceding "Blues for Pablo" (the original first track on Side Two) than on the Legacy CD.
As of the time of this writing, SME SACD SRGS4543 can still be purchased at reasonable prices from online vendors. Several members of the predecessor site sa-cd.net posted enthusiastic reviews of this disc, and now that I've had a chance to hear it, I share their enthusiasm.
If the reconstructed stereo mixes made by engineer Mark Wilder for the Sony CD box set and the Mosaic LP set (which is out of print and very expensive on the resale market) are extant and appropriate for the purpose, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs should consider licensing that material for production of a new SACD. My personal preference is for MoFi's SACDs of "Miles Smiles", "Kind of Blue" and "'Round About Midnight" over the US and Japanese single-layer SACD versions, but I would not hesitate to recommend SRGS4543 as the best currently available digital issue of the stereo version.
Critical consensus among jazz historians holds that "Miles Ahead" is the most artistically successful of the Davis/Evans collaborations. Gil Evans' innovative large ensemble arrangements frame some of Miles Davis' most eloquent recorded solos. Producer George Avakian had the foresight to perceive that Evans' dream of redefining large-ensemble jazz, harnessed to Miles Davis' unique sound and name recognition, would also guarantee commercial success, and a lasting place in the history of American music.
Copyright © 2019 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net